11,249 feet. Not ninety minutes ago, it had basked in the first rays of morning light before anywhere else, the sun spilling down from Mount Hood’s summit until it wakened the glaciers and, eventually, the forests below. Towering some 6,000 feet into the dizzyingly empty space above our heads, it’s a height difference that human minds aren’t fully equipped to understand. Judging with only your eyes, it might as well be 60,000 feet.
Close your eyes and picture the Pacific Northwest. Tell me what you see. Gray skies? An unshakeable mist? Maybe bright green sword ferns, super-sized trees, and fountains of Starbucks coffee on every Seattle street corner?
Fifty miles east of Portland, Oregon, a snow-capped cathedral of glacier and stone holds a blue sky atop its broad shoulders. Even on a sunny day in August, ski lifts spin skiers to the only place in North America where turns can be had all 12 months of the year. But even that may not be Mount Hood’s most well known feature. That honor belongs to a place that has haunted people’s dreams for 42 years.
The buzzing on my wrist comes as no surprise. In those brief moments drifting in limbo between asleep and awake, I struggle to register what exactly it is floating above my head. Beyond the soft armor of mosquito mesh surrounding me, and through the tarp stretched taut above, an amorphous shape of white bends into unrecognizable shapes and patterns, like sunlight seen from beneath the surface of water.
The Sierra. The range that has captured the fascination of icons like Ansel Adams and John Muir. Superlatives have been spilled over its incredible beauty, its almost idyllic climate, and the trails that beckon you to explore it ever more deeply. It may best be known as the Range of Light, but to me, it is simply the place where stone meets sky.
As with most evenings on this trail, I am cozy in my hammock before 8:00pm. Sweet Pea would be proud. This is the second time I’m doing this hike (the first time was in 2015). And with each passing mile, I can’t help but think how little has changed and how much has changed, all at the same time.
It’s easy to love John Muir, or at least the idea of him. That’s the appeal of idealists. Soaring rhetoric and a righteous cause in the proper hands can bring a groundswell of change that compounds like an avalanche. But it is a rare idealist who is able to effect change in the world. John Muir was certainly one of them.